Sex, politics and textbooks

California’s first openly gay legislator alters her controversial bill on schoolbooks and sexual orientation

As originally written, Senator Sheila Kuehl’s Senate Bill 1437 would have modified textbooks to include the sexual orientation of certain historical figures, like Billie Jean King. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger likely would have vetoed the bill.

As originally written, Senator Sheila Kuehl’s Senate Bill 1437 would have modified textbooks to include the sexual orientation of certain historical figures, like Billie Jean King. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger likely would have vetoed the bill.

A bill that would mandate California schools’ textbook content be modified to include references to the sexual orientation of some historical figures, such as Harvey Milk and Billie Jean King, has been modified to exclude the controversial provision, according to the primary author of the measure, state Senator Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica.

Senate Bill 1437 would have required “the inclusion of age appropriate instruction in social sciences on the roles and contributions” of people who “are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender to the economic, political, and social development of California and the United States,” according to the bill’s text. Depending on the definition of “age appropriate,” the new curriculum could have been taught in classes from kindergarten through 12th grade and potentially would have had ramifications beyond California because of the state’s influence with national school-textbook publishers.

Introduced in February, the bill was vigorously opposed by pro-family and religious organizations, including the Sacramento-based Campaign for Children and Families, which asserts on its Web site that the measure “would transform California public schools into transsexual-bisexual-homosexual indoctrination centers.”

In May, the Senate Education Committee debated the bill and took public comments. Although supporters of the measure were seemingly outnumbered by opponents, a vast majority of the opponents were Slavic Christians that had been bused in for the hearing, according to Kuehl. “The churches bus them in whenever there’s a bill about gay people,” she said. “I guess they came to America to engage in discrimination.”

The May hearing became colorful, if not confrontational, when a man who identified himself as “Pastor Randall Taylor, representing all true Christians” voiced his opposition to the bill. The chair of the committee, state Senator Jack Scott, D-Pasadena, immediately asked Taylor if he had the ability to know who true Christians were. Taylor replied that he did, and Scott asked how they would be identified. When Taylor responded “the Bible,” Scott’s tone became sarcastic. “The Bible. I see. And you’re the sole interpreter of the Bible. Thank you very much,” Scott said as Taylor returned to his seat and several committee and audience members chortled.

The bill also was opposed by the California Catholic Conference, which took a less confrontational approach than Taylor did. In a letter to legislators, conference Executive Director Ned Dolejsi warned that the measure would undermine the rights of parents to transmit their religious and moral beliefs to their children, result in more parents choosing to opt their students out from a social-science or history class they find morally objectionable and compel some parents to withdraw their children from public schools for alternative schooling. “Our opposition to it is that it represents an unnecessary and radical revision of the state’s core curriculum to serve a limited special agenda,” Dolejsi said. “It’s a concern to us from the standpoint of the general issue that textbooks don’t need to be altered to be politically correct.”

Kuehl said she didn’t take issue with the conference’s approach in opposing the measure. “The lobbyists from the Catholic church are quite respectful; they come up and say, ‘We’re opposed to the bill,’ and that’s it. I have no objection to the way they handle it,” she said.

The measure represented an attempted end run around the standard government curriculum-revision process—normally administered by the State Board of Education and California Department of Education—according to critics of the bill. Curriculum and textbook modifications are normally implemented beginning with a curriculum framework committee at the Department of Education, which proposes changes or additions and then puts out a draft document and receives public comments. A final version then is forwarded to the State Board of Education, which makes the ultimate decision whether to include the change in state school books.

Tom Adams, executive director of curriculum frameworks and instructional resources for the California Department of Education, said that curriculum changes mandated by the Legislature are rare, the last one having been in 1997, when a requirement for mandatory education on the Great Irish Famine of 1845-’50 was legislated into the state education code. Adams also confirmed that California textbook content has an impact on curricula in other states as well. “California itself is 10 to 12 percent of the national market on instructional materials; we’re one of the biggies in the process,” he said. “So that’s why when [California] says, ‘This must be in textbooks,’ it’s going to affect all the books in this state, and it may have a spillover effect into other states.”

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had similar concerns that the Legislature was attempting to shortcut the normal textbook-content-revision process, according to deputy press secretary Sabrina Lockhart. “We’re nationally recognized for our approach to selecting curriculum standards,” Lockhart said. “And the governor has vetoed similar bills because we’re considered a national model because we have a very balanced approach to teaching social studies and history, and there is a curriculum commission that sets and reviews textbook standards before they go to the state school board for adoption. The governor wants to make sure that everybody’s voice is heard and that we don’t single out one segment of a population.”

Lockhart said Schwarzenegger didn’t take a formal position on the bill, but in May the governor’s director of communications told the media that Schwarzenegger would veto the bill if it reached his desk, because school curriculum should include all important historical figures, regardless of sexual orientation, and because the Legislature was attempting to micromanage curriculum.

Kuehl, recognized as the state’s first openly gay legislator, evidently got the message and has removed the textbook-revision section of the two-part bill—which includes a separate component that would amend the education code to prohibit school instruction, instructional material or activities that reflect adversely on persons because of their sexual orientation.

“There was a lot of push back, mostly from the administration,” Kuehl said. “I had conversations with the governor’s staff, and he has sent out letters to people who wrote in favor of the bill saying that he doesn’t like the micromanaging aspects of it.” Before it was amended, the bill was approved in the Senate by a 22-to-15 vote, mainly along party lines, with Democrats supporting the measure. The freshly modified bill will move on to the Assembly when the Legislature reconvenes on August 7, and Kuehl hopes the scaled-back version will placate the governor. “It was a two-section bill, and now it’s a one-section bill,” she said. “We would at least like to salvage the antidiscrimination part.”